Etienne Rouwette portret
Etienne Rouwette portret

'Brainstorming isn't going to save the world'.

Mitigating climate change requires tough decisions. But how do you arrive at a good decision? In his book Engaged Decision Making, professor Etiënne Rouwette discusses methods that can help. 'At Macron's climate convention, there was too little focus.'

In organisations, it is usually teams that are responsible for big decisions. Decisions by these teams turn out wrong in three out of four cases, research shows. 'The options chosen are not implemented or do not solve the problem,' says Etiënne Rouwette, professor of Research and Intervention Methodology at the department of Business Administration. 'That wrong approach essentially amounts to a top-down approach. Not all people are allowed to participate in the decision. It then turns out that as a result, not all effects have been considered and there is often backlash from those who have not been heard.' An example of this in politics is the nitrogen map published by the Dutch government in 2022. It showed how much nitrogen reduction was needed for each area. 'Very top-down. It is not strange that the agriculture sector took action against that.'

Sticking to own ideas

When people do get involved, they can share their knowledge and multiple perspectives are considered. Still, being involved does not automatically ensure good results. Brainstorming happens a lot, but all you get is a wall full of ideas. You can cluster those ideas and prioritise them with stickers. But are you then on the same page? By the word "quality" I can mean something very different from you. In a brainstorm, you won't find out.' That way, people easily stick to their own preconceptions and ideas, is Rouwette's experience. In the biggest task of our time, tackling climate change, something completely different will be needed. 'Brainstorming alone is not going to save the world. The distance between a loose list of ideas and deciding what to do is too great. People and organisations need to get a better grip on the matter in order to make a move.'

Etienne Rouwette met boek Engaged Decision Making

Turning knobs 

Engaged decision making covers four methods aimed at identifying problems, goals, future perspectives and effects of actions. In each method, a group (five to 15 people) works with a clear step-by-step plan in which ideas are linked in a model. 'Such a model is not devised in advance, but created together with the group. That way, you really talk about the same thing. You map out the problem and then see which knobs you can turn.' Using data can be an important addition. 'Most issues these days involve a lot of data. Yet these are usually separate from a meeting. They come up briefly in a PowerPoint, but are not really included in the group process. With our methods, they are.'  

Citizen platforms 

When stakeholders are allowed to contribute to measures against climate change, models are used only to a limited extent, Rouwette notes. 'French President Macron set up a climate convention in 2019. For seven weekends, citizens worked in groups on numerous topics. In the end, 149 proposals were formulated, some of which were accepted by the French parliament. But in the end, it turned out that even if all the measures were implemented, the set target would be far from being met.' Rouwette finds such citizens' platforms interesting, although he is critical of the group process. 'At that Macron convention, there was too little focus. Then no coherent package of measures came out of it. Ultimately, it's about systems thinking.' 

Rouwette has been involved in decision-making for over 20 years. Much important knowledge he gained during this period has found a place in the book. To this end, he collaborated with colleague Alberto Franco, working at the University of BristolThere is an open access version of the book. 'I hope it will be widely read. These methods have proven their usefulness in practice and are also useful for climate decisions.' 

More info on Engaged Decision Making can be found here.

Text: Willem Claassen

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Behaviour, Management, Society